The NYT ran two articles today on copies of art, both listed on the front page in the respective sections: One listed in the “arts” section and titled “Imitations That Transcend Flattery” by Roberta Smith, and the other breathlessly titled Own Original Chinese Copies of Real Western Art! by Keith Bradsher, and listed in the business section. [By 245 this afternoon when I got back to this draft, I noted that the front page title of "Original Chinese Copies" had been changed, and "Imitations That Transcend" had been taken off the front page; both are listed in the arts page and "Original Chinese Copies" is still in the business section.]
I’m sure this is an NYT editorial accident, left hand, right hand, lack of knowledge, etc., but reading the two articles together gave me a queasy feeling, like when you’re watching a movie and suddenly realize you need 3D glasses. The color information is shifted just slightly, creating two different accounts of the world. Once I put on my special 3D Glasses of Power*, everything righted itself: in fact, I got a whole different picture, and a lot of new information poppped out.
OK, the metaphor can’t go on forever. For one thing, these are not exactly the same two articles. The two articles are on different issues and consequently take different tones: “Original Chinese Copies!” is a standard business section article about the cheap oil painting (aka ‘mass art’ or ‘hotel art’) industry: China has gotten into the industry & the American industry is (or may be) suffering from the competition. “Imitations That Transcend”, on the other hand, is a standard artist/exhibition article: it focuses on one artist, Richard Pettibone, who does “appropriation art”, and discusses him and his current show, which consists of miniatures of famous paintings.
But perspectives are indeed shifted across these two articles, and noticing that, you notice a few other things. First, obviously, race: “Original Chinese Copies!” feeds into a racist stereotype of Asian people that was much in evidence during the 70s & 80s, when many US newspapers ran stories about the Japan-US trade deficit and Japanese businesspeople (well, let’s be honest: businessmen) buying up American landmarks, property, etc. At the same time there was a lot of fairly blatant racism in US media, e.g., pundits talking about how the Japanese imitated US innovations but didn’t come up with their own ideas. The idea was that the Japanese are just so good & efficient at copying that they beat ‘us’, despite our brilliance, and as a result of our good nature & the post-WW2 reconstruction. I’m sure the racism in that media coverage has been analyzed half to death elsewhere. And I don’t want to have to point it out, but the same themes popped up in this article: the Chinese are doing mass production, they’re very good at copying, etc. And they’re a threat: “China is creating a fast-growing army of trained artists”. (An army of artists. … Hmm. Sounds pretty good, to me, and probably a hell of a lot cheaper, not to mention safer, than an army of, err, armed soldiers.)
Questions of originality, authenticity, quality, the definition and value of art, aesthetics, ethnically identifiable schools of art, etc., are elided through smirky punctuation with an unpleasant racial undertone: The author politely refrains from discussing the ‘quality’ of the Chinese copies, while making his opinion known through the scare quotes around ‘quality’. This is a perfect entree to a point about one person’s art being another person’s garbage liner, and might have been useful in an article about mass art oil paintings. Instead the ‘quality’ line gets dropped into a section to further contrast between Chinese art (industrial-style, copied) and American art (original). No mention here of the ‘quality’ of the American hotel-art industry’s output. And check out the headline: Someone, the author or the editor, entitled the article “Own Original Chinese Copies of Real Western Art!”. ‘Real’? ‘Western Art’? Where to begin. I don’t mind a business article not getting into the fine points of what makes art Art, but don’t furtively raise the issues in a racist context through the use of snide punctuation.
And then there’s the discussion of copyright, which plays into a new wine, old bottles theme in the business press: “Oh these Asian countries are so bad! They don’t respect our copyrights!”
Exporters of Chinese paintings say that even though the paintings often imitate well-known works of art, the copies are inherently different because they are handmade, and so do not violate copyrights.
Robert Panzer, the executive director of the Visual Artists and Galleries Association, a trade group based in New York, disagreed. He said that the vast majority of paintings produced before the 20th century were in the public domain and could be freely copied and sold. But it is not legal to sell a painting that appears to a reasonable person like a copy of a more recent, copyrighted work, he said.
The old bottles for this new w(h)ine? Still the same old racism-tinged stories from the 70s & 80s: Asian countries are bad! bad! and they’re hurting our business interests. What’s so sad about this particular whine is that it’s just sort of tossed in the mix to further taint the Chinese mass-art industry with Badness; the copyright material is almost completely gratuitous to the article. Nowhere in the article, for instance, does it describe any instances of a Western painting, still under copyright, that was actually duplicated. Nor are the copyright concerns ever discussed in the context of the US mass-art industry: if the US mass-art industry used to be such hot shit, then how did they deal with copyright issues attaching to not-very-original hotel art? China might like to know! But no — the copyright issue isn’t seriously discussed; it’s just tossed in, perhaps by order of editor, to lengthen a too-short piece.
So when writing a business story about mass art, why not just throw in some gratuitous discussion of the Bad Bad Chinese Communist Copiers? Everyone else does. Coverage of international copyright markets and issues is subtly infused with a significant racial dynamic. It’s not like I came up with this half-baked idea on my own — I came up with it after years of reading the same stories over and over and over again. Eventually, after reading yet one more article about how a developing nation is thumbing its nose at US copyright imperialism (ahem), I cottoned to the fact that I had read a lot more articles about Asian copyright infringement than any other kind.
I bet anyone else following these issues in the US has too. Consider how often we hear about the thriving Asian & South/Central American markets for illegally copied works (usually videos and recorded music). Those brown people sure are bad, disrespecting our copyrights and hurting our native copyright industries! Contrast the badness of people of color with the similarly thriving market in Russia & Poland, nations peopled with people of pallor. The only significant media coverage these markets got in recent memory was when the entertainment industry decided to drop its prices in Russia to compete with the ‘black’ market. ** Or what about Norway? It just doesn’t get any whiter than Norway, which not only has ‘black’ markets in copyrighted goods, but whose court system declared that Jon Lech Johansen, teen auteur of DeCSS, was A-okay. Finland is a veritable outlaw nation! Surely the press ‘tars’ the Finnish with the brush of piracy? Not.
The MPAA, god bless its tiny little nonracist copyright maximalist heart, wants to target all ‘pirate’ nations, including “Brazil, Malaysia, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Thailand.” (2003/Feb/16) The MPAA was particularly concerned with Russia and South Africa. But a LexisNexis Academic search for “(copyright w/5 (piracy or pirate)) AND (china or asia or korea)” in the business & finance section of the news returned 831 hits; whereas the same search, replacing the countries with (russia or soviet or poland or finland or norway) produced 66 articles; adding in africa (russia or soviet or poland or finland or norway or africa) doubled the results to bring us to 130. (4 of the first 25 articles of this set headline only Asian countries!) Alas, I couldn’t really do a full-Asian search, which would have also included India, Pakistan, etc.; the Academic LexisNexis subscription I am using rejected search sets with over a thousand results. Media coverage of international copyright infringement and international markets in copyright infringed works seems to focus disproportionately on Asian nations.
It’s a convenient story for the American business press, after all. The Asian copyright violation story fits the larger narrative of an Asian threat to US industries, and simultaneously reinforces the image of unoriginal but but frighteningly efficient Asian copyists.
… So, okay, another bad article in a series of largely bad business articles about the entertainment industry and copyright infringement over the years. But the NYT ran this particular bad article simultaneously with another article, profiling an artist who truly is outright copying art, and not just public domain or arguably barely original works, but works that are famous, recognizable, and still under copyright restrictions. (Okay, possibly still barely original.)
From the copyright critical perspective, “Imitations That Transcend” was certainly better than “Original Chinese Copies”. “Imitations That Transcend” profiled Richard Pettibone, an artist who is grappling with questions of originality and the definition of art. By contrast, “Original Chinese Copies” alludes to copyright infringement as a means of villification of a competitive industry.
Of course, “Imitations That Transcend” is not without its problems. It mentions numerous male artists but neglects to mention virtually any female artists. Not surprising, perhaps: as the Guerilla Girls have long documented, even in the 21st century sexism flourishes within the art world. And as so much of the NYT’s writing, article describes the artistic ambitions of the art without actually engaging the ambition or analyzing them. I found that particularly ironic in an Arts article about an artist who deconstructs Art.
But it was the juxtaposition of “Imitations That Transcend” with “Original Chinese Copies” that really caught my eye, as a real-time demonstration of everything that was wrong with these articles, and, for that matter, a real-time demonstration also of Richard Pettibone’s alleged concerns with the definition of art and ideas, too. It’s too perfect. In the Arts section, we get a self-important article describing Real Art, but completely neglecting to actually connect the issues within the Art to any real world concerns or indeed any actual engagement with the issues the subject Artist purports to raise. And in the Business section, we get cheap villification of people of color (mere copiests in an ‘army’ warring against Fine American Art and artists’ colonies), softened by some gentle condescension of the Chinese artists’ individual human ambitions. Top it all off by the polite use of punctuation to allude to commentary without actually giving any: the ‘quality’ of the art is scare quoted, in lieu of actual discussion. And the ultimate irony, ‘Real Western Art!’ is given pride of place in the headline.
Hey, who needs artists to create irony, when you have the NYT editors.
* 3D Glasses of Power! Get them today! Feminism! Antiracism! Copyright Criticism! Knowledge is power, and with the 3D Glasses of Power!, you will have all the knowledge you can handle!
** Arrggh! [Tearing my hair out in frustration.] ‘Black’ market, indeed.